The Crisis Years

Title:                      The Crisis Years

Author:                  Michael R. Beschloss

Beschloss, Michael R. (1991). The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khruschev, 1960-61. New York: Edward Burlingame Books.

LOC:       90055946

E183.8.S65 B469 1991

Date Posted:      April 6, 2013

Especially apropos in the wake of the recent Gulf war—a superb diplomatic history that unfolds the near-fatal miscalculations made by the cool New Frontiersman and the mercurial Soviet in the most dangerous years of the Cold War. As JFK took office, both he and Khrushchev hoped to lift American-Soviet diplomacy from its low after the U-2 affair. But the contentious Vienna summit, held only a few months after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, exacerbated their personality differences—Kennedy misunderstanding the depth of the Communist’s ideological fervor, and Khrushchev dismissing the American as a callow youth who could be intimidated.

Soon, they were lurching from one crisis to another—Laos, Vietnam, the Congo, and Berlin—until the Cuban Missile Crisis shocked them into concluding the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Beschloss makes excellent use of government documents, post-glasnost admissions by Soviet officials, and interviews with their American counterparts to reveal how the two leaders missed each other’s signals because of preoccupation with domestic critics: Kennedy with right-wingers hinting he was no Eisenhower, Khrushchev with Chinese Communists and Kremlin hard-liners. Moreover, Beschloss plausibly explains previously inexplicable events (e.g., that JFK’s exposure of Soviet nuclear inferiority pushed Khrushchev into redressing the balance of power by installing missiles in Cuba), while offering tantalizing speculations on other mysteries (e.g., the assassination attempts against Fidel Castro). History as it ought to be written—exhaustively researched, revelatory, graceful, and, despite our knowledge of the outcome, even thrilling.

During the years 1960-1963, the world came closer than at any time before or since to nuclear incineration. It was during this period too that the United States and the Soviet Union launched the greatest arms race in history. Beschloss here examines the tense, dynamic and very dangerous relationship between the superpower leaders, John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, focusing largely on the 1961 summit conference regarding Berlin and the Cuban missile crisis of the following year. Drawing on newly declassified U.S. government sources and oral and written reminiscences by Soviet figures recently made available to Western scholars, Beschloss expands our knowledge and understanding of Soviet decision-making with material about Kremlin discussions during the Cuban crisis, behind-the-scenes maneuvers of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet reaction to the Kennedy assassination and Khrushchev’s fall from power in ’64.

Michael Beschloss[1] is a TV journalist who appears regularly on CNN, and the author of an important study of Eisenhower’s Soviet policy entitled Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, And The U-2 Affair (1986). In writing The Crisis Years: Kennedy And Khrushchev, 1960-1963 Beschloss has made extensive use of newly [1991] declassified material including tapes of White House conversations, records from Soviet archives, and interviews with key figures such as Richard Helms, former CIA Director.

This volume examines U.S.-Soviet relations from 1960 to 1963, a period which Beschloss appropriately labels the “crisis years” because it was a period in which the two great powers came closer to nuclear war than at any other time in history. Although President Kennedy became a capable crisis manager Beschloss suggests that in part because of his inexperience Kennedy bore substantial responsibility for creating many of the crises which dominated his presidency. Beschloss claims that Khrushchev desired rapprochement with the U.S. so that he could cut Soviet military spending and use the funds for consumer goods. Kennedy, Beschloss argues, consistently misjudged Khrushchev, pursuing policies which unnecessarily brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of war.

John Kennedy’s relations with women have attracted considerable attention, and Beschloss carefully spells out the political implications this issue. During World War II, Kennedy had an affair with a woman who he knew was suspected of being a Nazi spy. As president, he had affairs with an East German woman and with the mistress of a Mafia boss. These affairs exposed Kennedy to potential blackmail from various groups—and from J. Edgar Hoover, who had proof of these relationships.

Kennedy’s reputation among historians has declined dramatically in recent years. Although Beschloss attempts to be fair to Kennedy, and does acknowledge his successes, The Crisis Years will reinforce this historiographical trend. This is an excellent study of an important period in U.S. and world history.

[1] Beschloss is also author of Kennedy and Roosevelt (1980); Mayday (1986); and Eisenhower: A Centennial Life in Pictures (1990)